Ask Auntie Pinko
February 3, 2005
By Auntie Pinko
I'm pretty much a conservative but I read your columns and I
find them well grounded in fact, well-reasoned, insightful, blah
blah blah - all the good stuff. Sometimes I wonder what you're doing
on DU. Anyway, the last column I read of yours was about the Soviet
Union. I was a Soviet studies major a hundred years ago in college.
I recall the goal - in part - of the Soviet system was to create
"the New Soviet Man."
I always laughed at that. Seems to me any system, of government,
psychology, or anything else, that requires for its success the
complete revision of human nature is, by definition, doomed. Isn't
the strength of capitalism and democracy the fact that they not
only do not depend on the creation of a "New Soviet Man" for success,
but in fact assume human nature as we know it and attempt to weave
a social cloth around it? See anything by John Adams, for instance.
Okay, that's kinda convoluted and I'm not sure what the question
is, but I'd love to see what you have to say about this.
Thanks for the kind words! I'm on Democratic Underground because
it's a place that attracts a lot of intelligent, well-read people
who like to think and discuss and, yes, argue passionately about
things they (and I) care about. I suspect that's what attracted
you here, too. Every Internet site that discusses controversial
issues has its share of people who like to flame and indulge in
hyperbole and see how far they can get away with outrageous assertions,
and DU is certainly no exception. But it's also distinguished by
many thoughtful and curious and articulate people who feel free
to disagree as well as agree with one another.
I think I understand what you're getting at, Tom. Systems that
depend on human behavior cannot diverge too drastically from the
fundamentals of human nature, if they wish to operate successfully.
And I certainly agree with you that attempting to radically alter
human nature often limits a system's ability to survive and thrive.
And a system that relies entirely on an idealized version of humanity
will not long endure.
Nevertheless, Auntie would caution you about a couple of things:
The first is the assumption that "capitalism and democracy"
are based on an accurate representation of human nature. Capitalism
(read Adam Smith) relies on "enlightened self-interest,"
which is a shorthand way of saying that sometimes one must see that
others benefit in order to benefit yourself. As an ideal, this is
a neat concept; as a reality, human nature rarely selects "enlightenment"
As an example, America once had an excellent health care system.
Several things contributed to this: health insurance was widely
and cheaply available through employers, and the government invested
quantities of tax dollars in public health, vaccine research, and
subsidizing health care for the indigent. As a result, by the time
I was in college, polio was a distant memory, tuberculosis was almost
vanishingly rare, childhood epidemics were tightly controlled, and
health care providers were able to keep their doors open and ensure
a high quality of care.
And we forgot, I think, what it was like before that time. We
went for the short-term gains of cutting public health budgets,
moving research into the private sector (where it could be concentrated
on products to address profitable issues like erectile dysfunction
and 'esophageal reflux') and plumping up corporate bottom lines
and public budgets by eliminating employee health benefits and restricting
health care subsidies for the indigent.
As a result, tuberculosis is back in America's cities. How long
before it becomes a raging epidemic? Health care providers are sinking
under the costs of absorbing care for the uninsured and underinsured,
and the costs for everyone are increasing exponentially as restricted
access and increased cost force people to wait until they are desperately
ill to seek care. This is the real face of unrestricted free-market
capitalism, regardless of the idealistic concept of "enlightened
As long as those with wealth and power use that wealth and power
to build a dam between themselves and the consequences of unbridled
free-market capitalism, the consequences will continue to accumulate
and pile up behind that dam. And when it breaks, the flood will
So capitalism, too, is no more viable in its "pure"
form than communism or socialism.
I'm wary of walking into the trap of discussing "democracy,"
as well. The government described by America's Constitution is not
a pure democracy; and indeed, as originally envisioned by the founders
was even less "democratic" than today. The limitation
of franchise to propertied white males and the indirect method of
selecting Senate representation are two elements that have not survived,
among many incorporated to limit democratic government in America.
If you're using the term "democracy" as a general shorthand
for "systems of government based in some degree upon political
self-determination by the citizenry," I tend to agree with
you that as a political system, "democracy" appeals strongly
to a key aspect of human nature. As such, it provides a fairly stable
basis for social organization.
But it can equally be said that in human nature there are contrary
elements that are unharmonious with both democracy and capitalism.
While the instinct for self-governance is strong in human nature,
it is often counterbalanced (especially in times of turmoil, threat,
and uncertainty) by an equally strong instinct to follow a strong
leader to safety and/or victory, even at the cost of "freedom."
And while the self-interest that drives capitalism is a strong element
of human nature, this too is counterbalanced by a strong altruistic
drive that urges people to build safe communities and look after
the well-being of others as well as themselves.
In short, Tom, Auntie Pinko doesn't think human beings will ever
devise a system of social/political organization that will perfectly
(or even very adequately) reflect human nature, because human nature
is a thing of contradictions and variations. All systems are based
on appealing to some element(s) of human nature, and they succeed
insofar as those elements are in the ascendant. But education (or
indoctrination) can only go so far in assuring that ascendancy.
Contrariness, external conditions, changing times and values will
always erode any system's stability.
It sounds like I am saying that there is no such thing as a truly
stable, workable, viable system - and perhaps I am. In my experience,
the best strategy is threefold:
First, blend several systems together - control your capitalistic
excesses with socialist moderation, temper your authoritarian security
with democratic freedoms, create outlets for individual entrepreneurial
enterprise in your socialist economy, add a framework of guarantees
and limits to your democratic latitude.
Second, remain flexible - be prepared for your system to modify
in small, slow increments as conditions demand, and remain constantly
vigilant to prevent it from calcifying into rigidity. Particularly
where that rigidity ends up serving the interests of a powerful
minority of your citizenry!
And third - strive always to have your system raise the bar, just
a tiny bit, on human nature. To highlight the aspiration for your
citizens to be the best human beings they can be, to nurture the
noblest side of human nature, even while tolerantly accommodating
those practical ignoble realities that can paradoxically advance
the human condition.
I hope that's addressed your interests, Tom, and thanks for asking
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